Helen Keller on Smell, The Fallen Angel

[“SMELL, THE FALLEN ANGEL” is Chapter SIX of The World I Live In (originally published in 1908), a magnificent book that tells of sensations beyond seeing and hearing. It is also the book from which I took the heartbreaking preface that ends Helen Keller Tries To Tell You Her Story. This has been gently edited for apparent scanning errors and the odd British spellings Americanized. 

 

Helen Keller, with full dark hair and wearing a long dark dress, her face in partial profile, sits in a simple wooden chair. A locket hangs from a slender chain around her neck; in her hands is a magnolia, its large white flower surrounded by dark leaves.
Helen Keller, Los Angeles Times, 1920.

FOR some inexplicable reason the sense of smell does not hold the high position it deserves among its sisters. There is something of the fallen angel about it. When it woos us with woodland scents and beguiles us with the fragrance of lovely gardens, it is admitted frankly to our discourse. But when it gives us warning of something noxious in our vicinity, it is treated as if the demon had got the upper hand of the angel, and is relegated to outer darkness, punished for its faithful service. It is most difficult to keep the true significance of words when one discusses the prejudices of mankind, and I find it hard to give an account of odor-perceptions which shall be at once dignified and truthful.

In my experience smell is most important, and I find that there is high authority for the nobility of the sense which we have neglected and disparaged. It is recorded that the Lord commanded that incense be burnt before him continually with a sweet savor. I doubt if there is any sensation arising from sight more delightful than the odors which filter through sun-warmed, wind-tossed branches, or the tide of scents which swells, subsides, rises again wave on wave, filling the wide world with invisible sweetness. A whiff of the universe makes us dream of worlds we have never seen, recalls in a flash entire epochs of our dearest experience. I never smell daisies without living over again the ecstatic mornings that my teacher and I spent wandering in the fields, while I learned new words and the names of things. Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across a thousand miles and all the years we have lived. The odor of fruits wafts me to my Southern home, to my childish frolics in the peach orchard. Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief. Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening grain fields far away.

The faintest whiff from a meadow where the new-mown hay lies in the hot sun displaces the here and the now. I am back again in the old red barn. My little friends and I are playing in the haymow. A huge mow it is, packed with crisp, sweet hay, from the top of which the smallest child can reach the straining rafters. In their stalls beneath are the farm animals. Here is Jerry, unresponsive, unbeautiful Jerry, crunching his oats like a true pessimist, resolved to find his feed not good–at least not so good as it ought to be. Again I touch Brownie, eager, grateful little Brownie, ready to leave the juiciest fodder for a pat, straining his beautiful, slender neck for a caress. Nearby stands Lady Belle, with sweet, moist mouth, lazily extracting the sealed-up cordial from timothy and clover, and dreaming of deep June pastures and murmurous streams.

The sense of smell has told me of a coming storm hours before there was any sign of it visible. I notice first a throb of expectancy, a slight quiver, a concentration in my nostrils. As the storm draws nearer, my nostrils dilate the better to receive the flood of earth-odors which seem to multiply and extend, until I feel the splash of rain against my cheek. As the tempest departs, receding farther and farther, the odors fade, become fainter and fainter, and die away beyond the bar of space.

I know by smell the kind of house we enter. I have recognized an old-fashioned country house because it has several layers of odors, left by a succession of families, of plants, perfumes, and draperies.

In the evening quiet there are fewer vibrations than in the daytime, and then I rely more largely upon smell. The sulfuric scent of a match tells me that the lamps are being lighted. Later I note the wavering trail of odor that flits about and disappears. It is the curfew signal; the lights are out for the night.

Out of doors I am aware by smell and touch of the ground we tread and the places we pass. Sometimes, when there is no wind, the odors are so grouped that I know the character of the country, and can place a hayfield, a country store, a garden, a barn, a grove of pines, a farmhouse with the windows open.

The other day I went to walk toward a familiar wood. Suddenly a disturbing odor made me pause in dismay. Then followed a peculiar, measured jar, followed by dull, heavy thunder. I understood the odor and the jar only too well. The trees were being cut down. We climbed the stone wall to the left. It borders the wood which I have loved so long that it seems to be my peculiar possession. But to-day an unfamiliar rush of air and an unwonted outburst of sun told me that my tree friends were gone. The place was empty, like a deserted dwelling. I stretched out my hand. Where once stood the steadfast pines, great, beautiful, sweet, my hand touched raw, moist stumps. All about lay broken branches, like the antlers of stricken deer. The fragrant, piled-up sawdust swirled and tumbled about me. An unreasoning resentment flashed through me at this ruthless destruction of the beauty that I love. But there is no anger, no resentment in nature. The air is equally charged with the odors of life and of destruction, for death equally with growth forever ministers to all-conquering life. The sun shines as ever, and the winds riot through the newly opened spaces. I know that a new forest will spring where the old one stood, as beautiful, as beneficent.

Touch sensations are permanent and definite. Odors deviate and are fugitive, changing in their shades, degrees, and location. There is something else in odor which gives me a sense of distance. I should call it horizon–the line where odor and fancy meet at the farthest limit of scent.

Smell gives me more idea than touch or taste of the manner in which sight and hearing probably discharge their functions. Touch seems to reside in the object touched, because there is a contact of surfaces. In smell there is no notion of relievo [relief], and odor seems to reside not in the object smelt, but in the organ. Since I smell a tree at a distance, it is comprehensible to me that a person sees it without touching it. I am not puzzled over the fact that he receives it as an image on his retina without relievo, since my smell perceives the tree as a thin sphere with no fullness or content. By themselves, odors suggest nothing. I must learn by association to judge from them of distance, of place, and of the actions or the surroundings which are the usual occasions for them, just as I am told people judge from color, light, and sound.

 

From exhalations I learn much about people. I often know the work they are engaged in. The odors of wood, iron, paint, and drugs cling to the garments of those that work in them. Thus I can distinguish the carpenter from the ironworker, the artist from the mason or the chemist. When a person passes quickly from one place to another I get a scent impression of where he has been–the kitchen, the garden, or the sick-room. I gain pleasurable ideas of freshness and good taste from the odors of soap, toilet water, clean garments, woolen and silk stuffs, and gloves.

I have not, indeed, the all-knowing scent of the hound or the wild animal. None but the halt and the blind need fear my skill in pursuit; for there are other things besides water, stale trails, confusing cross tracks to put me at fault. Nevertheless, human odors are as varied and capable of recognition as hands and faces. The dear odors of those I love are so definite, so unmistakable, that nothing can quite obliterate them. If many years should elapse before I saw an intimate friend again, I think I should recognize his odor instantly in the heart of Africa, as promptly as would my brother that barks.

Once, long ago, in a crowded railway station, a lady kissed me as she hurried by. I had not touched even her dress. But she left a scent with her kiss which gave me a glimpse of her. The years are many since she kissed me. Yet her odor is fresh in my memory.

It is difficult to put into words the thing itself, the elusive person-odor. There seems to be no adequate vocabulary of smells, and I must fall back on approximate phrase and metaphor.

Some people have a vague, unsubstantial odor that floats about, mocking every effort to identify it. It is the will-o’-the-wisp of my olfactive experience. Sometimes I meet one who lacks a distinctive person-scent, and I seldom find such a one lively or entertaining. On the other hand, one who has a pungent odor often possesses great vitality, energy, and vigor of mind.

Masculine exhalations are as a rule stronger, more vivid, more widely differentiated than those of women. In the odor of young men there is something elemental, as of fire, storm, and salt sea. It pulsates with buoyancy and desire. It suggests all things strong and beautiful and joyous, and gives me a sense of physical happiness. I wonder if others observe that all infants have the same scent–pure, simple, undecipherable as their dormant personality. It is not until the age of six or seven that they begin to have perceptible individual odors. These develop and mature along with their mental and bodily powers.

 

What I have written about smell, especially person-smell, will perhaps be regarded as the abnormal sentiment of one who can have no idea of the “world of reality and beauty which the eye perceives.” There are people who are color-blind, people who are tone-deaf. Most people are smell-blind-and-deaf. We should not condemn a musical composition on the testimony of an ear which cannot distinguish one chord from another, or judge a picture by the verdict of a color-blind critic. The sensations of smell which cheer, inform, and broaden my life are not less pleasant merely because some critic who treads the wide, bright pathway of the eye has not cultivated his olfactive sense. Without the shy, fugitive, often unobserved sensations and the certainties which taste, smell, and touch give me, I should be obliged to take my conception of the universe wholly from others. I should lack the alchemy by which I now infuse into my world light, color, and the Protean spark. The sensuous reality which interthreads and supports all the gropings of my imagination would be shattered. The solid earth would melt from under my feet and disperse itself in space. The objects dear to my hands would become formless, dead things, and I should walk among them as among invisible ghosts.

Sandalwood Love: Heart(wood) in a Bottle

Sandalwood reminds me of entering homes with objects from faraway lands. My aunt and uncle had such a home as this, with artifacts collected in world travels scenting the almost sacred space. When I entered the familiar yet exotic realm, my child’s imagination and consciousness expanded to include worlds beyond the tiny one I occupied.

 

As Deniz Ataman, managing editor at Perfumer & Flavorist put it in an email, “At the root of it, perfumery is about sharing the essence of the Earth’s spirit and creating beauty for others to enjoy.”
Earlier this year, Perfumer & Flavorist teamed up with The American Society of Perfumers (ASP) and TFS (an Australian company sustainably growing and harvesting Santalum album) in a perfume contest using this precious commodity. It was in fact this competition that inspired me to write about sandalwood, because, as I mentioned in Aroma Victoriana, it is an unfortunate age-old tradition in perfumery to be secretive, and the World Perfumery Congress (WPC) is one of the few places where the spotlight shines on the perfumer, instead of the hype of a brand or celebrity so common in the fragrance industry.

 

Ataman attests to the excitement of this unique competition, “Working with the American Society of Perfumers and TFS Corporation for the perfume contest was one of the highlights of my career. Our team was fortunate enough to participate in the judging with five other perfumers. It was quite an experience to watch a perfumer in action–it’s not just about smelling. It’s about experiencing, it’s about unlocking your memory and traveling to forgotten places.”

Jennifer Jambon, a perfumer at Molton Brown (London), won the competition. In its announcement article, TFS quoted The president of ASP, Chris Diienno, explaining her win:

 

“Jennifer Jambon’s winning fragrance topped a world class selection of contenders by striking a delectable balance of complimentary notes. Capturing the magic of the TFS sandalwood, she exposed it just enough to allow it to peek out and blend with the beautiful orris accord she had developed. This gave an elegance to the creation that became the determining factor for the judges,”

 

Sandalwood is one of the building block materials in both men’s and women’s fragrances. In fact, the oft quoted figure from Michael Edwards “the perfume experts’ expert,” is that approximately 47 percent of all fragrances since 1790 contain sandalwood notes.

 

Considering the demand, it’s no wonder Sandalwood (Santalum album) has been for decades overharvested and endangered. Thus, the WPC’s 2016 theme of Scents and Sustainability had a focal point in the work of TFS.

 

Sandalwood oil derives from the heartwood of a mature tree. There is much oil in the roots, so in order to yield the full potential of oil, the tree must be uprooted, the outer bark and branches stripped away, the inner pulverized and then steam distilled. In India, Santalum album is endangered and even threatened with extinction. Although the Indian government has done much to regulate the buying and selling of the oil which sells at upwards of $2000 per kilo, poaching is obviously a problem, and enforcement difficult.

 

As Keville and Green put it in Aromatherapy, “Sandalwood has a long history of being overharvested everywhere it grows, and it is difficult to cultivate and grows very slowly, taking twenty to fifty years to reach maturity.”

 

The time it takes to grow sandalwood is clearly at odds with the desire to be a profitable business. Keville and Green conclude their section on sandalwood as a “threatened essential oil plant” (alongside rosewood and spikenard) thus: “India’s sandalwood trade dropped in half during the 1980s. Replanting efforts and the control of poaching have been difficult. Some landowners actually cut down the trees rather than risk poachers, who often arrive armed and dangerous.”

 

In fact, according to a 2014 article at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), rangers are killed for protecting nature’s pricey offerings: “Almost 60% of all rangers killed this year are from Asia, with the majority of those from India. India, Thailand, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have seen the sharpest increase in ranger deaths caused by poachers in recent years. Areas rich in elephants, rhinos, sandalwood, rosewood and other valuable resources are most affected.”

 

Besides being a precious commodity for which people have been killed, sandalwood takes time and special effort to grow. Sandalwood, like its relative the European mistletoe, is hemiparasitic. The hemi means that the plant contains chlorophyll, and therefore carries out some photosynthesis, but derives a great deal of nutrients from neighboring trees. So, while human poachers are after sandalwood’s heartwood, the sandalwood tree is sucking the life out of its neighbors!

 

Hemiparasitic trees have specialized roots called haustoria that attached themselves to the root systems of other trees and pilfer their nutrients. Emma Mende, a forester who works with the TFS team in Australia’s tropical north, growing over 4.5 million Indian sandalwood trees and 10 million host trees, describes the endeavor in a brief Q&A:

 

“Over the course of an Indian sandalwood tree’s life it will use around 3 different host trees. While we plant all of the host trees in the plantations at the same time, the Indian sandalwood tree will move from the pot host to the fast growing medium-term host which is strong enough to support the nutrient requirements of the Indian sandalwood tree. Once the medium-term host tree dies at around 3 years of age, the Indian sandalwood tree will move to the long-term host which by that stage is strong enough to sustain the Indian sandalwood tree’s growth. The Indian sandalwood (Santalum album) will then host on this tree for the rest of its life.”

 

She concludes by making the connection between the forester’s job and oil production:

 

“To achieve the best yields this parasitic relationship needs to be carefully managed even from the seedling stage. This is because the development of heartwood in a stem is largely dependent upon diameter growth early in an Indian sandalwood tree’s life. This is important since fatter (larger diameter) trees generally have more heartwood and therefore offer more oil yield.”

Since the original publication of this article in my Distill My Heart column at Quail Bell Magazine, I have had the privilege of smelling TFS Sandalwood, and it is glorious! But as I’d not yet got my nose on the TFS Santalum album and in order to learn some distinction between species, I travelled to NYC’s West Village to the beautiful aromatherapy supply store Enfleurage, where I purchased a tiny vile–2ml–of Santalum album from Indonesia.

I also got to do a little comparison contrast with another species of sandalwood native to Australia, Santalum spicatum, which was much stronger and in some ways seemed more familiar, more easily recognizable, intellectually anyway, as sandalwood. It poked me in the nose and announced itself, “I’m sandalwood!” In other words, not a terrible smell, just a little over-friendly, bordering on aggressively pleasant, like an ambitious salesperson.

On the other hand, the Santalum album drifted into my consciousness as if from a tiny box of exotic treasures rarely opened. When I got it home I put a drop in my palm and rubbed the woodsy warmth around. Creamy sweet and softly spicy, this lingering scent is ambiguously seductive, being neither too feminine nor too masculine. I’m smelling myself right now, and I smell delicious!

In response to my follow-up email, Joe Richkus (who teaches many of the free classes at Enfleurage) wrote that the Indonesian trees that provide the oil they carry are left to grow for forty years before they are harvested and added, “It could be a lot better, but that’s a happy medium given the climate for fast profit today.  The older the tree, the better the oil.”

Hence, sandalwood is necessarily expensive. My little 2ml vile of deliciousness cost me $25 at Enfleurage, and at Organic Infusions I see they are selling Santalum album (CO2 extracted) for $94 for 5ml. One of my favorite aromatherapy shops, Stillpoint Aromatics does not carry S. album, but carries Royal Hawaiian (Santalum paniculatum for $300/oz.

In other words, if the stuff is cheap, chances are it is not sandalwood at all but another genus altogether, such as Amyris. Also, real sandalwood may be adulterated with a synthetic, such as Sandela or Javanol, which can work, albeit with much fussing, in perfumery, but may run you into trouble if you try to use it medicinally or in aromatherapy.

Sandalwood has had many uses through the ages, and so the peddling of fake or adulterated sandalwood is nothing new. In Sandalwood and Carrion, James McHugh writes, “Sandalwood is arguably as important a raw material to South Asian religions and civilization as jade is to China or porphyry was to the Roman Empire at certain times. … Taking sandalwood as an example, I present several texts on the evaluation and artifice of aromatics and conclude that faking this costly material was clearly both common and very profitable.”

 

There is so much to say about a product of nature prized for millennia, that I will wind this potentially book-length subject down with this insightful comment from McHugh, “things smelled differently in early and medieval South Asia than they do today: not only were there many different odorants to smell (more elephants and sandalwood for example, at least in certain circles), but, more important, things smelled differently because of what was in people’s heads when they smelled things.”

 

In conclusion, I offer this thought: When an exotic fragrance is, by ingenuity and cunning, distilled and transported so far from its natural and cultural habitat, to land like an arrow from nowhere into our noses, we skirt the dangers of simple appropriation. A quick Google search for “sandalwood” will find you thousands of posts about the marvelously spiritual effects of sandalwood, which appeal I think to our sometimes untethered experience of modernity. Perhaps learning a little bit about the tree that gives its life for our pleasure will help us to feel less greedy about having it in our lives, and realize that our demands for natural must necessarily be costly. It is up to us to decide if the costs should be suffered by our pocketbooks or the environment. If we are ok with taking the hit financially, then a 2ml vile of the essence of Santalum album’s heartwood offers an olfactory expansion of our personal smellscape that is not otherwise quantifiable.